Three Open Source Hardware Projects' Challenges and Successes

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While open source practices have come to dominate the software industry, they're still fairly new to hardware. Many open source hardware projects are now seeing some early success but there are still many challenges ahead, as the keynote speakers at LinuxCon and CloudOpen on Friday demonstrated.

MakerBot VP Anthony Moschella, Open Prosthetics Project Founder and Iraq war veteran Jonathan Kuniholm, and IBM Power Systems General Manager Doug Balog each had a unique take on open source hardware. But all agreed that open source principles will speed technological innovation whether it's in 3D printing, prosthetics, or servers. Here are some of the successes and challenges they highlighted and the opportunities they presented for the open source community to get involved and make a difference.

1. MakerBot

The promise: An open source approach to 3D printing will allow makers and manufacturers to someday iterate on and create physical objects for their own purposes the way developers modify open source software today.

“This is the real innovation of 3D printing: the idea that objects themselves are not final,” said Moschella in his keynote.

Success: While MakerBot's newest model, the Replicator 2 is no longer open source, MakerBot's Thingiverse boasts a community of about 13,000 makers, designers and engineers who download and share open source designs for printed objects. The Robohand, for example, is a 3D-printable prosthetic hand for children who are continuously outgrowing their prosthetics and can't afford to replace them. The open source design allowed for rapid iteration and improvements that made it easier to assemble and share.

Challenge: Consumer-focused 3D printing machines are largely limited to printing plastic toys and other small objects. Making useful, everyday objects is still uncommon, but it won't always be. As a wider variety of objects can be printed, Moschella says that copyright will become a real issue.

2. Open Prosthetics Project

The promise: Open source designs can help make more affordable prosthetics with much improved capabilities in dexterity and manipulation than are currently available, to amputees around the world.

Success: The Open Prosthetics Project has started a small open source project that includes hardware, firmware, and software, and is primarily working with two university laboratories.

“DIY and open source are still part of the solution. They're messy and sometimes ineffective tools, but sometimes scratching your own itch is the best way to get something done,” Kuniholm said.

Challenge: Finding financing is difficult because the prosthetics market is too small to attract venture capital. And even though their code is open source, the cost of entry for developers is fairly high because participation requires approximately $20,000 in Matlab tools to get started. They are hoping to port the Matlab code to another language such as Java to make the project more accessible to developers.

3. IBM Power Systems

The promise: Through open source collaboration between dozens of companies, the tech industry can push past the performance limitations of silicon-based hardware.

Success: Formed last December by IBM, Google and Mellanox, the OpenPower Foundation now has more than 50 member companies working together to improve application performance on servers.

“No single company owns the innovation agenda,” Balog said.

Challenge: IBM needs to grow the ecosystem of applications that run on Linux on OpenPower servers. The company is starting with a commitment to port all of its software products that run on Linux on x86 servers to also run on the Linux on Power platform. And it's asked other companies to do the same.